Copyright Â© 2014 Peter Nichols
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Cover photograph: Bill Brandt
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In memory of Archie Leach,
the local boy who got away
and became Cary Grant
Peter Nichols was an actor and teacher before becoming a produced playwright in 1959. His work for the theatre includes
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
The National Health
Privates on Parade
and the musical
. These won four Evening Standard Awards, Oliviers and a Tony.
He wrote the screenplays when three of these became feature films.
Feeling You're Behind
came out in 1984, a book of extracts from his diary in 2000. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His papers are in The British Library.
Born and brought up in Bristol, he now lives in Oxford.
is the first of five novels
The gorge was hundreds of feet deep. All he knew, teetering on the swaying footbridge, was not to look down. A river far below had cut this cleft in the rock and its torrential sounds reached him as he clasped the supporting ropes that served as railings on either side. Ahead stood his woman, clad only in a few animal skins, thighs bare almost to the waist, urging and encouraging, one hand outstretched to take his and help him to safety as he reached the far side. When her expression changed from an adoring smile to a grimace of sheer terror, he turned to look back and saw the huge ape arriving at the cliff-face behind him. The creature roared and grasped one of the supporting tendrils, tearing it from the earth as he might have plucked a daisy.
Animals were hellish hard to draw. Theo had modelled the ape on Alfred the gorilla in Clifton zoo but left him blank between the legs like King Kong in case one of the teachers ever collected the whole form's
Songs of Praise
and decided a drawing of Alfred's tool and pills wasn't right for the margin of a hymn-book and put him on detention. Three already this term and with four you had to go and see old Hines and be told off and sometimes whacked. Anyway the ape looked more like a bear, he decided, or a man in a bear-suit like in those old Christmas pantos he used to be taken to at the Prince's Theatre when he was a only a kid. He was no good at bodies, except when they were dressed. A man in coat and trousers or a woman in sweater and skirt were easy but when he tried limbs they always came out looking like sausages. So the bloke on the rope-bridge in his flickergraph was in grey flannel school uniform to make it easier than a loin-cloth. Theo skimmed the last pages with his right thumb, showing this version of himself staggering headlong across the chasm, which was a bit like the Avon Gorge when it passes Sea Walls but mixed up with the escarpment in
films. Leaving the sheer cliffside, the framed picture stayed on the hero teetering across, still some way from the other side, not yet in view. Now he went back and ran the whole sequence from beside Hymn 1, âFor thy Mercy and thy grace', to 498, âGird on thy sword, O man, thy strength endue'. The hero looked back the way he'd come at the monstrous monkey uprooting the bridge.
Which was how these two minutes felt, like crossing a huge gulf. The longest two minutes of the year, to be suffered every November, second by second, in something like silence, though a good few coughs hacked through the hall as the clock below the organ laboured on. Then old Hines on his platform would frown at the leading cougher's form-master standing in one of the niches built into the carved woodwork of the Great Hall. The master would pass the frown on like a parcel at a party. On special days like this, the teaching staff wore gowns, some lined with coloured reveres, some with rat-fur trimmed collars or cuffs. Only the gym-master's was plain black. Something to do with universities or colleges. Whatever they were.
Counting helped. Not the seconds. A hundred and twenty of those would lead to hysterical gibbering long before time was up. So: not seconds but, say, reckoning up how many bods were standing here in suspended life, most staring at desk-lid or floor, a few upwards at the hammer-beamed roof as if old God himself had perched up there and could give his hour-glass a tap to loosen the sand. Theo's own sort of god was there alright: The
Hunchback of Notre Dame
, old Charles Laughton as Quasi with one eye in the wrong place but terrifically agile and always ready to drop a load on some deserving head. Theo imagined the reverse wide-angle shot, Quasimodo's point of view. Rows of greasy heads of hair, mostly brown, with the balding pates of staff partly-hidden by the little lids on their wooden niches. How many?
He set himself to counting heads. Old Jimmie had taught them it was called polling. Say, an average thirty bods in each form, four to each year, six years going from the titches of twelve to the swots of the Sixths,â¦ makesâ¦ he jotted on the other margin of his
Songs of Praise
, not yet decorated with a flickergraph.
30 bods x 4 forms = 120
120 x 6 years = 720
Then the masters. There were 4 + 4 + 2 (1 at each end) = 10 niches, where they stood like the upended statues in those tombs he saw on Founder's Day in the cathedral. But for today's special occasion, some niches had two masters sharing, looking cramped and awkward, as though one had died later and had got stuffed into the same grave, due to a shortage. There was also a row of woodwork, metalwork and other oik teachers, even one or two sort-of women, music tutors and secretaries, standing behind the rows of swots and prefects in the centre slab just below the organ loft. Then on the platform beside Hines were a visiting vicar or two, with purple chests under their back-to-front collars and a fat man with a brass chain who was something to do with money. So, thirty-five teachers, say, made:
720 bods + 35 staff = 755
In another building not far off, the Prep would be having the same sort of service, their silence noisier even than this one. So, including them:
755 + 150 = 905
Plus the Prep's teachers, perhaps 10 ten moreâ¦ so =
Man, this is hell's boring. How much longer?
These sums straggle down the margin, opposite one frame of the flickergraph of the bod tightrope-walking the gorge. By now the sheer cliffside has left the frame to the right as our view stays with the hero waddling across the chasm. Still the other side hasn't come into view. Just the taut rope, slightly bent beneath his weight. The hero looks back the way he's come. And we Cut: to the monstrous monkey ambling towards the precipice.
He moved his gaze from the dark corner of the roof where Quasi lurked and leered to where Jimmie Lunceford stood in his niche. What was it old Dolly Grey had told him one day in the art room when he took Theo's head under his cloak for a crafty cuddle? The Great Hall and everything in it, the pointy bits of stone and the windows with coloured pictures in them. the carved angels reading what looked like copies of the School Magazine, all these only
as old as a church, but churches were usually much older. This school, he'd said, was only built about sixty years ago. Only? Theo would try to use the âonly' in his end-of-term impersonation of old Dolly in his brilliant Welsh accent. âOnly' sixty meant this hall was even older than Dad!
How far did the grey-flanneled explorer still have to go to reach the far side where
's Jane (no, Margo Carpenter) waited in her scanty outfit of animal skins that left her legs naked nearly up to her waist? Now that Jimmie's eyes were on him, he daren't draw the rest of the sequence, in which the ape would shake Theo off the rope but he'd catch it as he fell, colliding with the cliff but go on hand-by-hand, reach the far side, take Margo in his arms as she gazed up adoringly andâ¦ what? Kiss her glistening half-parted lips probably. And then what?â¦ he adjusted the stiff horn he realised was pushing out his grey flannel trousers.
Outside, all over the city, he knew very well, traffic had stopped, buses were waiting, their passengers standing up on both decks, coalmen stood on carts behind horses that stamped their hooves and made that terrific blowing noise when flies crawled up their nostrils that his best friend Jake Swift could do brilliantly. One or two would drop a load of steaming dung on the road, soft and brown and oatey-looking, with a sound like dropping a pack of cards. Men with gardens to manure would have to hold back before shovelling it up, to show respect for the valiant dead. Men stood with hats off, women beside prams with babies screaming inside. He thought of soldiers he sometimes watched on Brandon Hill jerking up and down on their tarts. Would they get off and stand too, trousers at ankles, huge knobs sticking out, tarts waiting in the grass, till the two minutes were over? Oh, man, if onlyâ¦
Jimmie Lunceford's eyes, that had seemed to be fixed on the sloping desk lid that was part of the niche he stood in, were now raised to meet Theo's. The slight widening that signalled a question warned him to wipe the smile off his face and put on again whatever solemn expression he'd had for that part of the two minutes that had already passed. Hell's torture, man.
Relief came. At that moment their massed prayers must have reached either God or Quasimodo and they all heard deep and rhythmic snores coming from Artie Shaw, Modern Languages, Choirmaster and organist. Hines's glare whizzed from the last cougher to the tilted mirror above the organ-loft facing him high up behind the Sixth Form swots. His black look was supposed to be as cruel as a stare from one of those old monsters that could turn you to stone or a pillar of salt. Basilisk, was it? No one could see Shaw the snorer as he sat low on his bench, hidden by the bank of organ-pipes each side, with those little smiling mouths halfway up where the music came out. Everyone shook with held-in laughter, except perhaps a few of the worst swots. If this massed hilarity burst into noise, it could break the stained-glass windows, like bomb blast, as seen on
of London air-raids. But the magic hadn't worked. Hines's look hadn't killed. Artie snored on. Hines cleared his throat to warn the school of bad times in store if anyone dared find it funny. The multiple intake of breath that should have burst into honking hysteria was held, stretched taut and slowly, silently, released. Lower lips were bitten by upper teeth, eyes screwed shut, fists clenched on benches, hymn-books bent double. There was a sort-of silence, apart from Artie's contented snore. One or two masters nearest the organ looked as though they might go and give him a nudge but the moment was too solemn, any such move would insult the glorious dead. The Head's gaze was fixed on the clock-face a few feet below Shaw's bald-spot, as the final seconds ticked away.
Theo concentrated on seeing his hero to the clifftop and glorious Margo. He was close now, hanging and moving upward inch-by-inch, hand-by-hand. Without a break, the snore became a resounding dischord as Shaw fell forward over the keys, waking him at last. He sat up, in confusion.
Accepting defeat, Hines signalled the O.T.C. bugler to sound âThe Last Post'. This allowed a general cough and shuffle, and a relaxing of diaphragms, before Shaw played the first two lines of 598 âO God our help in ages past' and the words were bawled with relief as if the silence had lasted a year.
Theo sang descant along with the choir, another bunch of swots standing near the main swot body, conducted by one of those sort-of women. The hymn wasn't a patch on the Latin School Song they always did at prizegiving but the best part was that old Shaw hadn't been turned to salt by old Hines's glares and was doing his terrific twiddley-bits on the high notes and the rumbling low bits by pulling and pushing a lot of knobs and tap-dancing on his pedals.
The vicar gave thanks and led the Our-Father then old Hines told everyone to sit.
“Time, like an ever-rolling stream,” he read out,
“Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day.”
He surveyed the school, as though expecting huge applause for repeating words they'd all just sung.
“But our very presence here today is proof, if proof were needed, that they are not. Not. Forgotten. This service of remembrance attests that the thousands who gave their lives â especially those of this very school â did not die in vain. Sometimes indeed it may appear so. Superficially, the sad fact that, a mere twenty years after the last, our great nation is once more in the throes of a war to the death, and against the same aggressor, may seem to ask âFor what did they die?'. But this does not in any way abrogate the sacrifice and achievement of our brave countrymen and schoolfellows.”
He turned his head towards the lower forms.
“For the benefit of years one and two, abrogate means to cancel, nullify or cross out.”
A few of the ugliest swots in the front row made a noise like smiling and Hines turned his eyes their way, a passing glance that lined him and them up together against the oiks. Theo wrote âabrogate' on the empty half-page of his hymn-book after the index, ending in 703, âZeal of the Lord forever burning'. This may come in useful when he did Hines at the end-of-term show. It was easy to do that vicars-and-headmasters way of talking, if you imagined a wodge of dinner or gum stuck in the back of your mouth.
Old Quasi had swung and swivelled himself to a beam directly above the platform. His angle-shot viewpoint showed the top of Hines's head, the thinning fair hair, neatly parted.
Close-up on Quasi working his swollen tongue among stumpy teeth and bloody gums. Then his point of view again as his huge gob fell with a long drawn-out whine and the camera followed down till the load was delivered bang on target.
Sss yyyoooâ¦ kkhhhâ¦